In terms of major inquests and public inquiries the past year or so has been a time of endings and beginnings. The families of those who died at Hillsborough in the UK’s biggest-ever sporting disaster have finally, after 28 years, received a measure of justice, with the second coroner’s inquest delivering a verdict of unlawful killing due to gross negligence failures by police and ambulance services to fulfil their duty of care to the supporters. Six people have since been charged with various offences including manslaughter by gross negligence, misconduct in public office and perverting the course of justice. Meanwhile, the inquiry into the disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower has opened, with all those affected hoping that they will not need Hillsborough-scale patience in their search for answers and accountability. So, it’s a good time to reflect on whether or not or current law is now sufficiently effective in delivering truth and positive change in the wake of major casualty incidents.
The event was hosted by Garden Court North Chambers, Manchester, and chaired by Henrietta Hill QC (Doughty Street Chambers), with a panel of three further leading practitioners in the field: Matthew Hill (1 Crown Office Row), Nancy Collins (Hodge, Jones and Allen LLP), and Pete Weatherby QC (Garden Court North Chambers).
All concurred that we have come a long way in a relatively short time. Procedures are now more transparent, victims’ voices are heard, and the culpable are exposed and humbled, all in ways that were unthinkable only a generation ago. In particular, the bringing of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998 has placed an invaluable focus on the State’s obligations towards the general public. Matthew Hill reminded us of the ways in which trust and independence were so easily undermined by political interference or judicial insensitivity during the (pre-Human Rights Act) Bloody Sunday and earlier Hillsborough investigations. In particular he called for an end to over-reliance on self-investigation, but also highlighted the difficult balancing act required when setting the scope of an inquiry, the proper remit being to inform, but not resolve, public debate. ‘Judges’, he said, ‘should not be expected to be arbiters of the zeitgeist.’ Pete Weatherby QC agreed that ‘judges shouldn’t delve into politics’, but was concerned that an overly cautious approach was being taken, preventing (for example) the Grenfell enquiry from discovering possible root causes of the disaster in government policies of austerity and privatisation.
Nancy Collins picked up on Mr Hill’s reminder of the private human tragedies that lie behind public disasters, and she gave us a solicitor’s perspective on the skills and creativity required to involve and empower clients in the inquiry process. She also explored the interplay between inquiries and other investigations and processes (internal investigations, criminal proceedings, inquests and civil litigation).
Mr Weatherby, (who represented 22 of the 96 Hillsborough families), celebrated the substantive and procedural rights available under Article 2 of the European Convention, and described how the second Hillsborough inquest had taken place in a more enlightened time where both the scope for critical judgment and the possibilities for disclosure had increased, and where legal aid was more readily available not just for the public body but for victims’ families themselves. However, he took as his main focus the need to challenge more effectively what he called the ‘culture of denial and institutional defensiveness’ which exists within many public bodies that are subject to investigation, and which can cause obfuscation, delay, and cost, not to mention compounded suffering for those most affected by disastrous incidents. To address this entrenched problem, Mr Weatherby and others are campaigning for a new bill to increase the accountability of public authorities. Dubbed the ‘Hillsborough law’, this would impose a duty on public bodies under investigation to ‘act with transparency, candour and frankness’, and would involve a requirement for up-front position statements, and criminal sanction for authorities or private contractors who are found to have intentionally or recklessly misled the public or failed in their duty of candour. This should help ensure that any delay in completing the work of a public inquiry will be down to time spent hearing from interested parties and dealing with fulsome disclosure, rather than battling to gain basic respect in the form of transparency and co-operation. Further details of the proposed law, which already has the official endorsement of the Labour Party as well as some cross-party backing, can be found at the website www.thehillsboroughlaw.com.
The evening closed, as with many such HRLA events, with a drinks reception and a chance to network with friends and colleagues. I, for one, learned a huge amount in the space of a couple of hours, and emerged feeling inspired and emboldened to explore this vital area of law in my future practice.
Jeremy Frost is a member of the Young Lawyers Committee of the Human Rights Lawyers Association, and will commence his pupillage at Garden Court Chambers in 2018.